Why Do They Oppose?  What Can You Do?

by A.R.M. Imtiyaz, Ph.D.

We may argue about the facts, about who did what to whom first and who is the most aggrieved party, but it is important to understand where others are coming from and their feelings about the situation.  We must stand in their shoes.  The following article allows us to stand in the shoes of a Muslim who favors Muslim-Tamil unity and points us in the direction of his solution to the current antagonism in a thoughtful way. -- Editor

Theoretically speaking, in deeply ethnically divided societies, minorities are generally vulnerable to the state or dominant ethnic groups’ domination and oppression.  If the oppressed ethnic minority is geographically concentrated, it will seek, or violently mobilize, to establish its own state and institutions against the oppressive state or ethnic group.

But, if a regional minority who are not geographically fully cornered or are intermixed faces oppression and discrimination from the regional majority, that ethnic group may mobilize politically or seek military shelter either from the state or dominant ethnic group, or they will loosely organize some sort of violent mobilization to uphold their own security and for their own protection. In fact, the primary reasons and motivation behind the regional minorities’ mobilization is the growth of their hate for and fear of the regional majorities. 

In this theoretical context, this article would attempt to identify the answers why the eastern Muslims either are being used by the state and Sinhala leaders and politicians against the Tamil nationalist struggle or continuously go up against the Tamils' struggle.  The direct question is why do the northeastern Muslims basically oppose the Tamils and their struggle?

In my political understanding from living and working experience in the heart of the eastern Muslim region, eastern Muslims face two great crises.  These crises are security and leadership. The first is the result of a narrow Tamil nationalism, the second is a consequence of the former.  In other words, the first crisis of security was triggered by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s (LTTE) approaches or policies, the second crisis of leadership resulted from the inability of progressive Muslim forces to deliver alternative Muslim leadership.

Security Crisis

The security crisis of the Muslims has dramatically shaped the Muslims' approaches toward the Tamil national struggle.  Muslims who speak Tamil in the region changed their preferences and strategy to contain the ethnic Tamils' cultural and political domination.  This led to the formation of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) in the mid of 1980’s, when the Muslims also established some informal contacts with the Sri Lanka state forces.  These measures, in my opinion, formed in a response to the Tamil cultural syndrome and were to diffuse the Tamil threat.

In actual fact, no ethno-political group would extend their solidarity to a fellow oppressed ethnic community when it is systematically targeted by a group that itself is subject to the major, dominant group’s political and military oppression and discrimination.  Sri Lanka’s northeastern Muslims already have enough bitter experience: northern Muslims were expelled forcefully from Jaffna in October 1990, 300 eastern Muslims were killed at a prayer time inside their mosque in 1991 and their wealth is confiscated, particularly both in the Baticolaoa and Amparai districts of the eastern province.  There is a widely shared thought in the region that Karuna, who broke from the LTTE ranks in early 2004 and is now closely assisting Sri Lanka paramilitary forces, was behind the mosque massacre and land confiscations.  Whether these actions were planned by Karuna or not, the truth is that those were believed to be the works of the LTTE.

In fact, the LTTE and other Tamil militant groups, including the Perumal-led, Indian-sponsored EPRLF administration, filled Muslims hearts with fear through their intimidation.  This largely led some frustrated Muslim youth to join state security forces, either as low-level cadres or as informants. 

The clear primary beneficiary of the LTTE’s and other Tamil militant groups' atrocities was the SLMC, which formulated persuasive policies based on politico-religious rhetoric to maximize Muslim votes, radical anti-Tamil or anti-LTTE groups, the Sri Lanka state, and Sinhala political leaders including the bigoted Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).  The more the Tamil nationalist leaderships oppress the Muslims, the more the Muslims extend support to the politico-religious Muslim leadership or anti-Tamil Muslim leaderships, in other words, the more the Tamils harass the Muslims, the weaker the Muslim-Tamil unity registered.

The point is that the narrow Tamil nationalist actions not only conveniently helped the anti-Tamil forces among the Muslim community, but also it weakened the voice of progressive Muslim forces.  I had several chances to meet and talk with those who became the victims of the LTTE’s violence.  In fact, I passed every day those Muslim lands either destroyed or confiscated by the LTTE.  When I talked about Tamil –Muslim unity, those affected simply said I do not have any communal feelings because I come from Colombo.  All this correctly replies why the northeastern Muslims oppose the Tamils and their legitimate struggle.

However, no sincere actions came out either from the highest-level LTTE hierarchy or the current LTTE’s eastern regional bosses to make concessions to Muslims as a confidence-building measure.  If truth were told, eastern Muslims are still subject to the LTTE’s systematic harassment and extortion on a daily base.  The LTTE’s narrow-minded activities should be blamed for the Muslim opposition at the grass-root level against the tsunami Joint Mechanism.  This is truly frustrating and discourages all pro-Tamil-Muslim unity forces on both sides.

I am not trying to put all blame on the LTTE or Tamil side.  I know for sure that Muslims in Sri Lanka are not 100 percent innocent and their every move does not reflects political and social sincerity.  It is true that Muslims being used by the state and Sinhala politicians against the Tamils and Muslim elites enjoyed some cabinet portfolios in various administrations in the south.  As a person who genuinely loves Tamil-Muslim unity, I do not appreciate Muslims being used either by the state or Sinhala political elites against the interests of the oppressed Tamils.  But I am of the view that a regional majority should apply some progressive policies for the regional minorities to win their hearts and minds.  The LTTE knows well how the Tamils were discriminated against by the Sinhalese.  In point of fact, Muslims expected one way or another different treatments from the LTTE.

On the contrary, they were stunned when their existence was violently threatened by their fellow Tamil-speaking ethnic Tamils.  This political fear technically lends a hand to the Sinhala state to take advantage of the situation.  Blinkered moves by the Tamil nationalist forces also intensely damaged progress of progressive Muslims voices and opened the way for the domination of the narrow-minded Muslim forces.  Who is to be blamed for this outcome?  I know Muslims have their own share; I also do know Muslims have no choice, but to surrender either to the SLMC or to the state for their own "protection." 

Leadership Crisis

Let me now deal with what I call the leadership crisis.  It is general political understanding that a marginalized or oppressed ethnic community vigorously mobilizes or tenders committed support either politically or violently to the political movements or parties that carries that oppressed group’s agenda.  This theory has been proved from India to China to Palestine to Sudan to Nicaragua to Northern Ireland to Canada to the US.  To be precise, when groups in society feel their existence to be threatened by state or dominant groups, they naturally mobilize or offer their support to the relevant movements or parties.

I am pretty confident that the narrow politico-religious rhetoric and agendas of the Muslim political movements can be effectively challenged if the Tamil nationalist forces led by the LTTE honestly seek to review relations with the Muslims.  I also believe that, if Muslims' security crisis can be settled reasonably, their leadership crisis would be solved smoothly.  

In simple language political programs anti-Tamil Muslim nationalist movements, as well as the Sri Lanka state and its Sinhala agents' traps, can be weakened if the LTTE adopts what I call "ethno-cultural parity" in the east.  This will definitely discourage the dynamics which would make some narrow-minded opportunistic Muslim forces that which decides the Muslims' political fate.  In fact, regional minorities can extend their cooperation to the regional majority, which is in fact a national minority in the country as a whole, if the regional majority treats the minority well.  One may say this is a textbook liberal political science research explanation.  I believe that it can become true, if we adopt this theoretical framework to clean up our mess.

In fact, I was very excited when the LTTE met some Muslim civil organizations sometime ago in the volatile eastern province.  I wish this could be done often.  However, I must seriously warn that those Muslim individuals and organizations will meet tough pressure from the Muslim community if the LTTE fails to adopt honest approaches to budge the fear and to rectify unfair conditions.  It is for the most part up to the LTTE to build cohabitation with marginalized Muslims.  I can comfortably point out that Muslims would continuously oppose power-sharing deals, which would merger the northeast and would become active fans of both narrow-minded Muslim movements (not all the Sri Lankan Muslim forces are narrow-minded) and ultra- Sinhala nationalist forces (the JVP) if the LTTE continues its current disastrous strategies toward the Muslims.  

One billion dollar question is - Will the nationalist forces alter their mind truthfully on the marginalized northeastern Muslims?  I can only state that nothing is really impossible if the Tamils need more friends from their own backyard.

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Posted June 6, 2005